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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The American Chesterton, VII: Socialism and the New Religion

As we saw in previous postings in this series, Fulton Sheen’s “obsession” with socialism was founded solidly on his commitment to the principles of reason found in Aristotelian-Thomism, the philosophy of common sense.  Socialism, as Pope Pius XI explained, “is based . . . on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity.  Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms.  (Quadragesimo Anno, § 120.)

Pius XI: No Catholic can be a socialist.
That being the case, no Catholic — and certainly no Aristotelian-Thomist — could possibly accept socialism in any form, or by any name.  Why, then, have so many done so?  Even Mortimer Adler declared himself a socialist . . . before he met Louis Kelso and was introduced to the logic of binary economics and the economic foundation of the Just Third Way, eventually embodied in CESJ’s Capital Homesteading proposal.

While they are difficult to separate in practice, in our opinion there are two reasons — actually rationalizations — for accepting socialism, each a circular argument seeming to validate the other.  The first, the slavery of past savings, is the “civil” or “temporal” rationalization.  The second, the lack of the act of social justice, is the “religious” or “spiritual” rationalization.

Ironically, both of these rationalizations also hold true for capitalism.  This is not surprising.  As Sheen (and others) have remarked, socialism (the abolition of private property for all) is sometimes described as “state capitalism,” “capitalism” being defined as private property only for a private sector élite, and thus the abolition of private property for the many.

This is easy to understand.  If we assume that it is only by consuming less than is produced, and accumulating the excess in the form of money savings, that we can finance new capital, we necessarily limit ownership of all new capital to those who can afford to consume less than they produce.  As technology advances and becomes increasingly expensive, this means that only those who are already rich can, as a rule, own capital.

The presumed necessity of past savings to finance new capital was completely disproved by Dr. Harold Glenn Moulton in his 1935 book, The Formation of Capital, the third volume in a four-volume work, The Distribution of Wealth and Income in Relation to Economic Progress (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution,1934-1935), presenting an alternative to the Keynesian New Deal.  Moulton’s work was the basis for Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler’s 1961 collaboration, The New Capitalists (which had nothing to do with capitalists or capitalism), which presented a feasible proposal to (as the subtitle has it) “free economic growth from the slavery of [past] savings” and finance widespread capital ownership without redistribution or redefining ownership.

Unfortunately, capitalism, socialism, modernism, and New Age thought were and remain firmly locked into the past savings assumption that has crippled the sciences of finance and economics for generations.  Consequently, few people saw Moulton’s, or Kelso and Adler’s work as a way out of the traps created by the “new things” of the modern world, especially socialism.

John XXII corrected the errors of the Fraticelli.
This is not to say that various forms of what became known as socialism did not exist prior to the nineteenth century, or before the Medieval shift from the Intellect to the Will as the basis of the natural law.  It appears, in fact, that the fundamental assumption of socialism — that God vests rights in the collective and not individual human beings, or that the collective self-generates rights — preceded the actual shift; the actual theory was worked out and articulated much later to justify what people wanted to do.  For example (and assuming G.K. Chesterton was correct), the renegade Franciscan Fraticelli first changed their view of natural law (especially of private property), and then of religion to conform their religious beliefs to their economic and political program.

Nevertheless, it was not until the effects of advancing technology were felt on a wide scale hard on the heels of the Industrial Revolution that socialism became a serious problem.  This is because the effect of technology is to displace human labor from production.  Given the past savings assumption, when technology is inexpensive, everyone can own it, but if it is expensive — as advanced capital instruments tend to be — then few can own it.  Further, it is highly unlikely, as wages are forced down in competition with advancing technology and cheaper labor elsewhere, that propertyless wage-workers will be able to cut consumption and save.

Karl Marx: "To each according to his needs."
Within the past savings framework, then, it seems obvious that common humanity demands that since the goods of the earth were created for the benefit of everyone, that everyone has a claim in common humanity to a fair distribution of what is produced, whether or not what anyone produces equals what he or she consumes.  As Karl Marx put it in his Critique of the Gotha Program, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program.  Peking, China: Foreign Languages Press, 1972, 17.)

It necessarily follows that if how much each contributes makes no difference to what each receives, then no human being can have an inherent right to receive a distribution in proportion to his or her inputs.  The right to receive outputs in relative proportion to one’s inputs, however, is the classic definition of distributive justice from the Aristotelian-Thomist theory of natural rights.  The socialist therefore inevitably concludes that the natural law must be based on something other than common sense (reason) — or (more accurately) on human nature (in Catholic belief reflected from God’s Nature) and discerned by reason.

The natural law must, therefore, be based on the will in order to conform to the past savings assumption, which means on expedience or the desires of the strongest.  Might makes right, as is inevitable when there is a shift from the Intellect to the Will.  Lex ratio becomes lex voluntas, and pure moral relativism — lex talonis — takes over, leading in extreme cases to nihilism.  (All of this is explained in much greater detail in Heinrich Rommen’s book on the natural law; this is a very brief summary.)

Consequently, for the socialist only the collective — humanity as a whole — has rights, which the strongest dole out as they see fit or as expedience dictates.  The distortion that is capitalism transforms into the perversion that is socialism.

Fulton Sheen: Novelty trumps truth today.
If that were all, however, it is unlikely that socialism would have made much headway in the West, and its combination of Greco-Roman legal and political philosophy (reason — lex ratio) in civil society with its emphasis on inherent rights, and Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology with its emphasis on the inherent dignity of each human being as a human being under the highest sovereignty of God in religious society.  The new concept of civil society with its innovative scientific principles that overturned traditional Aristotelian-Thomism had to be joined with a new concept of religious society to replace traditional God-centered monotheism.  As Sheen explained,

“The whole appeal of the new idea of religion is that it is in perfect accord with the latest findings of science.  Professor [Alfred North] Whitehead, so deservedly recognized as a great scientist, has recently come forward in his ‘Religion in the Making’ to construct a religion on the new theories of science.  If a theory quite as fragile as relativity is dubious for science, the field where it properly belongs, it does not seem reasonable to make it serve as religion’s all-sufficient foundation.  There can be no doubt that it is the novelty in the application, and not the truth which appeals.  It is not by bread alone that the modern philosopher of religion lives, but principally by catchwords.”  (Sheen, Religion Without God, op. cit., 244.)

Suggesting that Chesterton was more than a little familiar with the passage quoted above, we find the same idea expressed in The “Dumb Ox” five years later.  This is where Chesterton described the presumed conflict in the Middle Ages between the new, half-understood science of Aristotle that had been twisted by the Averroists, and the demand for a new concept of religion to reconcile religion and science by making one go down before the other.

Aquinas, of course (and Chesterton, Knox, Sheen, and Adler), took the stand that both science and religion — reason and faith — are true.  Being different aspects of the one truth, science and religion are true in the same way.  Neither one need be sacrificed to preserve the other, either by inventing a new concept of science to conform to religion, or a new concept of religion to conform to science.  As Chesterton explained,

Thomas Aquinas: There is only one truth.
“St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.  Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith.  Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith could ultimately contradict the facts.  It was in truth a curiously daring confidence in the reality of his religion; and though some may linger to dispute it, it has been justified.  The scientific facts, which were supposed to contradict the Faith in the nineteenth century, are nearly all of them regarded as unscientific fictions in the twentieth century. . . . But whether his confidence was right or wrong, it was specially and supremely a confidence that there is one truth which cannot contradict itself.” (Chesterton, The “Dumb Ox”, op. cit., 93-94.)

Outside the Catholic Church the effort to reconcile science and religion by changing both of them was found in the tenets of what became New Age thought, of which the most influential was theosophy.  Inside the Catholic Church this was found in what became known as modernism — what Pope Pius X accurately described as “the synthesis of all heresies.” (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, § 39.)  Both are very hard to pin down as regards specific doctrines, making it easy to adapt both modernism and New Age thought to all the myriad socialisms, as well as make all the various forms of socialism conform to modernism and New Age thought.

The Abrahamic Aristotelian Tradition
Because both socialism (the new concept of science, philosophy being a science) and the new concept of religion could be adapted in so many ways, the vagueness and “Manichaean mutability” of modernist and New Age thought with their invention of and reliance on an entirely new cosmology to replace the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition made them plausible substitutes for the act of social justice.  Instead of being bound by the scientific — philosophical — principle of an absolute, reason-based concept of the natural law and inalienable rights held by every person (albeit distorted by capitalism), civil society could support the demands of socialism on an ever-changing basis of self-justifying faith that constituted a new concept of truth as well as religion itself.  Thus, as Sheen pointed out,

“There is humility and there is prudence in the caution of scientists when they speak of their theories as hypotheses, but there is no humility and no prudence in the recklessness with which philosophers of religion apply these hypotheses to religion.  Religion is not to be made the proving ground of every scientific hypothesis any more than the soul is to be made the puppet of every demand of the body.  It is not wisdom, it is not common sense to overthrow the established relations between God and man, because of certain hypothetical relations between space and time.  [Or between capital ownership and finance — ed.]  It is not good science, it is not good philosophy, it is positively bad philosophy of religion, to make approximations, and uncertain explanations of the universe the reason for overthrowing the abiding and eternal relation of Sovereignty and Paternity which are the bonds uniting man to God.”  (Sheen, Religion Without God, op. cit., 245-246.)